Not (Y)our Father's Russia
by David T. Jones
“[Moscow] is distinctly a Russian city…”
A Satchel Guide to Europe, 1911
It was the classic “bucket trip”—a journey of discovery to a long-anticipated geographic or intellectual Shangri-La before you “kicked the bucket.” Despite having spent a 30-year career as a U.S. diplomat, primarily focused much of that period on East-West arms control negotiations, I never visited the then Soviet Union. Nor had my wife, who left the USSR as a refugee child, returned for over 60 years.
It was time to go, and a nice combination of an affordable river cruise opportunity and a pile of completed (and no looming) projects made it a guilt free expedition.
But what to see and how to get there? Russia is immense; even dismembered following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, it spans 11 time zones and is more a continent than a country. Nevertheless, the “what to see” question, was relatively simple: despite its breadth, the most accessible and historic portions of Russia are in the West. We wanted to see St Petersburg and Moscow and a river cruise meandered from one to the other through a river/lake/slave-labor-built canal system that for almost six months each year is ice-impassable. Our September 2011 trip was the penultimate voyage of the season.
Getting to the starting blocks, however, was not half the fun. In contrast to most countries that emphasize tourist friendly smiles, dour Russia requires a visa. And there the “fun” began. Blithely I believed that living within 15 driving minutes of the Russian Embassy and having dealt with visas professionally, it would be a relatively easy process; I need not employ a facilitator to obtain a visa. Wrong. The Russians chose July to switch from a paper visa application to an obligatory computer/Internet process—that was the only way one could create an application. Their site appeared to have been designed by 70-year-olds with no computer skills (any normal high school student could have done better). It was so bad that the Embassy offered apologies for its crashing failures (in bad English). Suffice it to say that after four visits to the Russian consulate, we secured our visas, but next time I’ll pay the facilitator ransom and avoid the bureaucratic angst.
Nor will I kvetch about jet lag following nine flying hours (plus waiting time) between Philadelphia and St Petersburg. Experts postulate that you need one day to adjust for each time zone crossed (and more time the older you are—sigh); so when we decanted from the aircraft, the sprightly senior citizens that had departed Philadelphia were converted into the equivalent of limp dish rags.
Today’s Russia is not our father’s (or our) Soviet Union. The feared and loathed 1917-1991 USSR against which a generation of U.S. Cold War military and diplomats struggled is no more. The prospect of Soviet tank armies, preceded by Warsaw Pact cannon fodder troops, crashing through the Fulda Gap on their way to the Rhine is a memory of a nightmare.
The Moscow and Soviet Union of the past is gone: Red Square with its grim faced septuagenarians lined up on official holidays for Kremlinologists’ analysis atop Lenin’s Tomb reviewing march-bys of the latest armament; broad empty boulevards suggesting eight lanes to nowhere; drably dressed regiments of silent citizens; queues forming the instant anything appeared for sale with line-standers indifferent to what was being offered, assuming that if they didn’t need it personally, it could be traded for something useful; shortages of everything (food, housing, medical care).
And always the overarching menace of the most effectively murderous totalitarian state ever created in which Stalin and his successors murdered, tortured, and incarcerated opponents in prisons and gulags. No essential freedoms: the basics freedoms of speech; press; assembly; religion were at best shams. Propaganda was ubiquitous; the official newspapers (Pravda, meaning “truth”) and Izvestia (“news”) prompted the ironic comment that “There was no truth in Izvestia and no news in Pravda.” Authors such as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn jailed and/or exiled. “Our” Soviet Union was epitomized by Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984.
All gone. In its place is something new—and to the extent than a casual, albeit attentive, tourist can determine, considerably better and beyond Potemkin facade. During the course of an approximately two week river cruise from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, we spent three days in the “book end” cities and stopped multiple times at spots large (Yaroslavl [600,000]) and small (Mandrogy [perhaps 50 year round residents]). Cold War stereotypes are gone: a local market in Yaroslavl provided a wide range of fresh food; its associated open-air market was stuffed with an array of fashionable clothing. The iconic GUM department store in Moscow is a three-story galleria illustrating that wretched excess at high price is not a USA exclusive; every luxury, high end designer-label product appeared to be available—although the “ordinary Russian” customer was in short supply.
Citizens appeared well fed (admittedly it was summer harvest), healthy, and well—even fashionably—dressed—particularly young females. Stainless steel dentistry had disappeared. Soap had been discovered (there was no “crowd odor” in crammed subways). There were virtually no mendicants beyond a few pitiful very elderly women offering small bunches of flowers to supplement pensions virtually destroyed by earlier inflation.
Religion appears substantially free. The Russian Orthodox Church has had a construction renaissance with churches frequently rebuilt after Stalinist-era destruction. Using original plans and sometimes foreign funding, they are highly visible with vivid, almost Christmas ornament style domes—but with limited attendance. It has proved easier to rebuild structure than rekindle faith. Speech/press appears free(er), but there are enough horror stories of dead journalists to make direct repression unnecessary.
Terrorism is not trivial. The United States has 9/11 memories; Russians have comparably ghastly recollections of Moscow metro bombings, the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis (170 dead), and the 2004 Beslam school massacre (380 dead). Reportedly, Russians have dealt with Chechen terrorists by outsourcing repression to a local warlord; Moscow does nothing as long as he maintains security.
A bit to our surprise Gorby is no hero. First and last USSR elected president, Michael Gorbachev, is a Western icon for ending the Cold War (and presiding over the end of the Soviet Union). Conversely, he is reviled domestically for the same outcome: ending the Soviet empire, letting key components (Ukraine) escape, and plunging Russia into a decade long recession.
And Lenin is dead—certainly for Russians. The carefully preserved, slightly yellowish corpse of the first Soviet leader rests in its Red Square mausoleum. Nattily dressed with a blue (not red) tie, he is attentively guarded with ubiquitous security. Lenin is now a slightly macabre tourist attraction but virtually ignored by the Russian public. They had more than enough of manifesto communism and happily ignore the Tomb and the selection of second tier Soviets (Stalin, Trotsky, Brezhnev, etc) interred behind the Tomb and/or in the Kremlin wall. It provided quiet personal satisfaction to know that the vicious state they created and fostered is as dead as they are.
We also gathered new appreciation for Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which we carried on Kindles. Having read it 50 years ago as university freshmen, we remembered virtually nothing of its sociocultural complexity. It is one illustration of literature that should be read as mature adults rather than as pupa level teenagers.
Some Traveler’s Highpoints
- St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. It is world class and all the more to be appreciated since access is far harder than European and U.S. collections. However, while its highly touted Impressionist collection is doubtless excellent, viewing it gives fresh appreciation for the excellence of Philadelphia’s Barnes museum.
- Czarist-era residences in St Petersburg. They demonstrated a level of luxury that virtually cried out for revolution to redress.
- Moscow’s outstanding subway system. Always a point of pride, the system remains cheap, extensive, reliable, and clean. Individual stations are still showcases for art and sculpture. Our guides were even able to herd their chickens on and off without losing any of us, especially as there was no supplementary English for total Cyrillic descriptions.
- Stodgy Architecture. Moscow still appears squished with blocks of buildings that seem limited to five stories. Orthodox churches are elephantine—there is no Gothic lift to a Russian cathedral. There is a cluster of skyscrapers but they are the exception.
- The KGB lives—in new incarnation. Now the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), it continues to employ traditional surveillance measures against citizens and foreigners, albeit with a velvet (not a steel) glove over the iron fist.
A Bottom Line.
It is always hard to look beyond the transient: apparent stability and urban prosperity against a frequently noted but also discounted spectrum of declining population, toxic corruption, significant alcoholism, and an oil-dependent economy. Six months ago diplomatic professionals noted middle class frustration on the “what next?” level, but rejected a “Moscow spring.” They professed the combination of an energy-based economy (the price of oil must rise steadily to cover Russian government expenditures), corruption, and a feeble political system was headed for collapse—but in the middle not the near-term.
Despite assorted large demonstrations, Vladimir Putin remains the man. Akin to the 800 pound gorilla, where he sits—whether the presidency or as prime minister—is where power will lie. The only question in the March presidential election, was how much fraud was necessary for a Putin presidential victory of appropriate dimensions.
And the political scrambling about in early May is irrelevant; analysts should not read much into Putin skipping the G-8 in Washington. There is a spectrum of explanation ranging from his need to control nitty-gritty personnel decisions to a preference for visiting China before the United States (and he is still scheduled to see President Obama in June).
How Putin plans to address economic challenges (while expensively rebuilding his military) and maneuvering to reassert political control over “near abroad” states that escaped the USSR will be key questions for the next decade. Churchill’s clever maxim that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” remains appropriate analysis.
The views expressed by the author are his own.